Cover Image: The Sacrament

The Sacrament

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Member Reviews

I often think of a mystery as a form of verbal patchwork quilt, with scraps of clues and characters and plot forming the patterns -- which can vary from the randomness of a silk-and-velvet crazy quilt to the structure of the calico wedding-ring template.

One of the delightful surprises of quilting is the beauty that can result in from re-combining the simplest of materials. It was just so in the case of Cold Fear by Olaf Olafsson. A nun's memories from two earlier periods of her life, pieced alongside her humble duties of the present, created an astonishing amount of suspense and tension.

The settings -- Paris and Reykjavik, in the 1960s, 1980s and sometime in the 21st Century -- were lovingly rendered. The characters' struggles with their idea of God were portrayed so matter-of-factly that they became mere background for their actions -- this was no religious tract.

For those of us who read advance readers copies (where the formatting wasn't complete), some of the shifts in the alternating time lines weren't well-delineated. I trust that will be corrected in the published version. Even with that challenge, this was a lovely book. Thanks to NetGalley for the chance to read and review it.
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Sister Joanna has been called up from her quiet retirement at a convent in France and sent back to Iceland where she conducted an investigation at the request of the Vatican 30 years before.  This is a subtle novel that winds around the central mystery of her earlier investigation.  Yes, you know a priest jumped from the bell tower of a church and yes you know a child saw it from the closet he had been locked in but how does it all relate.  This spreads over three time frames- Sister Joanna's early days in Paris before she entered the convent, the initial investigation and her return to Iceland today.  You, like me, might guess what she was investigating even though it's. not spelled out til fairly late in the novel.  Other parts, however, will remain a mystery. There's an interesting plot line involving Joanna's love for her room mate Hella.  It's nicely atmospheric re Iceland (made me want to visit again).  Thanks to the publisher for the ARC. A very good read.
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The style of writing was hard to follow - with different time frames melting into each other with no warning.  There were times I wasn't completely sure exactly when the action was taking place - present day or twenty years ago.  I liked Sister Johanna - she was a troubled character and I felt she'd been sad all her life.

The narrative was confusing at times and it wasn't until the very end of the book that everything was made clear. There was a shocking twist I didn't see coming.  And I felt like saying 'Bravo Sister Johanna!'
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In his new novel The Sacrament, Olaf Olafsson grabs his readers’ attention by briefly telling how a young boy comes to be locked in an Icelandic Catholic school broom closet.  Standing on an overturned bucket to peer out the window, he imagines he is seeing Batman take flight from the church tower to save him.  Instead, the black-clad figure plummets to the ground.

Set in France and Iceland, The Sacrament shifts between three time periods all focusing on the central character whose birth name was Pauline but who becomes Sister Johanna.  Through memories and alternating chapters, readers learn why Pauline decided to study theology at Paris’ famed Sorbonne and ended up rooming with and learning Icelandic from her roommate Halla.  Eventually forced apart, the two go their separate ways, Pauline taking her vows and adopting the name Sister Johanna and Halla returning to Iceland.  Although Halla plays a larger role in the novel than teaching Pauline Icelandic, it is largely Sister Johanna’s Icelandic knowledge that makes the rest of the story possible.

The majority of the novel alternates between two trips Sister Johanna is called upon to make to Iceland-- first in her early 40s and second twenty years later. Her initial assignment is to investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse in a Catholic school.  Later she is called back because one of the witnesses has decided to tell what he withheld twenty years earlier.  

Although the external plot line centers on the opening investigation and later return and on the Catholic’s handling of the allegations in the 1980s and 2000s, the internal plot is equally as important,
 if not more so, as Pauline and Sister Johanna struggle with personal demons from teen years through quickly approaching old age.

While these observations may make The Sacrament sound overly heavy and serious, it has its tender and humorous moments , two of them involving Sister Johanna’s beloved stray dog  George Harrison and her mostly lighthearted friendship with young Páll, the Icelandic Bishop’s assistant assigned to chauffeur her around in an old car he has named Jesus.

The Sacrament is well worth reading on all plot levels although the time shifts are confusing until the reader realizes that the majority of chapters alternate between Sister Johanna’s first and second trips to Iceland.  A date at the beginning of each chapter would have alleviated any temporary confusion.

My thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for providing an Advance Reader Copy of Olafsson’s latest novel.
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Pauline's interior life plays out over many years in this new novel by Olaf Olafsson. While studying at the Sorbonne and living in a Catholic hostel, Pauline's path crosses with a priest who finds ways to intimidate and humiliate the young student. She follows his command and moves to another hostel, losing a meaningful friendship with an Icelandic student. These events changed Pauline's life.

Years later, when the student, who is now a nun living in Paris, gets a request to travel to Iceland and investigate an accusation made about a school's headmaster, the priest, now a Cardinal, enters once again into her serene life and rattles Sister Johanna to her core. The story is from Johanna's POV during flashbacks to her years as a student, a young nun, and now in her later years. Cardinal Raffin continues to have a hold over the peace-loving Johanna, so she follows his orders even as they are both older, and Johanna has little to lose.

And so we follow the nun's ordeal in Iceland and her longing for her quiet life back in Paris with her rose garden and her lovable mutt, George Harrison. It would be hard to imagine how one could take these factors and create a suspense novel, but that is what OO has done. I had to read to the end, follow Johanna, and hope that she landed back to where she would be happy and with peace of mind. Catholics hold sacraments as the sacred rituals of organized religion. It is often the authority figures who think nothing of the souls they vowed to protect. The story can be sad but not altogether surprising. The author handled the sheep gently and dealt with the shepherds in a manner they deserved.

Thank you, Olaf Olafsson, NetGalley, and Ecco for this ARC (December 3rd).
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Though admittedly, The Sacrament at times can be a bit of a confusing read, it is well worth your time and effort!!

The book is mostly told through the POV of Sister Johanna Marie and at times through a narrator. There are three distinct time periods covered: First, when young teenager Pauline Reyer comes to realize that she is different from most people she knows and tells her parents she has decided she wants to study theology. The reader "goes" with her to university and is privy to some of her experiences there. Next, when Sister Johanna Marie is a young nun. During this time she is sent to Iceland by the Vatican to investigate a letter sent to the Bishop in Iceland regarding matters occurring in the school there and file a report to the Church with her findings. Lastly, twenty years later, in her golden years, and still serving as a nun, Sister Johanna Marie is sent back to Iceland to talk to a young man who will only speak with her. He is one of the young boys who was present at the school she had investigated.

The story line flows freely between and among these time periods. Amidst the confusion this sometimes produces, the reader also sees the confusion in Sister Joanna herself; her striving to come to terms her own emotions, her desire to serve diligently, yet also her desire to find the truth and bring it to light. In this quiet and highly compelling story, the very character of the Church and its leaders are examined, ethical dilemmas are faced, and lives are both changed and lost.

This is a novel that I had a hard time putting it down. It was my first read of this author, but I can tell you honestly, that I found this book so impressive, I will be seeking out his other works.

Many thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher Harper Collins - Echo for allowing me the privilege of reading an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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Sister Johanna Marie is one of the most reluctant investigators I’ve ever read about. She’s only looking into accusations of abuse at a Reykjavík Catholic school for two reasons. First, she’s one of the few people in the bishop and the cardinal in charge know who speaks Icelandic. Second, the cardinal who put her on the case thinks he has dirt on Johanna and can push her to make the “right” report when she’s done. But surprising things happen in The Sacrament, by Olaf Olafsson. Maybe this time, the pressure to maintain the status quo won’t be strong enough to allow a predator to keep doing his evil work.

Johanna was once known as Pauline. As a young girl, she felt a strong faith in God and the Catholic Church, one that led her to study theology at the Sorbonne. But, in 1960s France, Pauline’s sexuality is socially unacceptable even if it feels like she’s found true love with her Icelandic roommate. When her priest finds out about their growing love, he breaks them up. The roommate goes back to Iceland. Pauline takes vows and becomes Sister Johanna. She walls off her homosexuality, taking refuge in her roses and prayers.

In 1987, Johanna is pulled out of her French convent and sent to Reykjavík. The Bishop of Iceland has received a letter reporting terrible abuse at a Catholic school but, rather than act on it himself, the bishop passes the letter up the ladder. The very priest who ruined Pauline’s chances of happiness with another woman dispatches the now middle-aged nun to “investigate.” This priest, now a cardinal, knows that Johanna won’t stand up to him or the bishop if they push her to paper things over. Johanna is just supposed to be a token, to be there so that the cardinal and the bishop can say that someone looked into the accusations against the school’s headmaster, Father August Franz. In the early 2000s, Johanna is once more taken from the convent and sent to Iceland. A young boy who was at the school has asked her to come back, so that he can finally share his last secrets.

The Sacrament moves back and forth between the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. Like the young Icelandic boy, this book gives up its secrets reluctantly. I didn’t know exactly what the accusing letter contained until about halfway through the book. There are hints here and there about what happened in 1987, but we don’t understand why things are happening until Johanna actually meets the sinister Father August Franz. The man terrifies whoever he can’t browbeat into compliance. August Franz thrives in an environment where he not only rules absolutely but also has the protection of the church, which doesn’t want a scandal.

Although this book deals with a difficult subject, I enjoyed The Sacrament a lot. Johanna is an amazing, unusual character. She seems compliant to her church, but we find that her compliance masks a deep anger at the injustice she sees. I also liked that the book’s focus is on the investigation rather than dwelling on what August Franz did to his students. I’ve never understood how people with a duty to care for children, their communities, can be so afraid of what happens when abuse comes to light that they’re willing to cover it up. While The Sacrament doesn’t answer that question, it does give us an astonishing example of what one person can do if they feel like they have take matters into their own hands.
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I love mysteries that deal with different places.  Here, we are transported to Iceland.  A French Catholic sister is sent to Iceland to investigate a charge of abuse against two school boys.  Why does the Catholic Church send a nun, you ask.   Supposedly because she speaks Icelandic.  But even she susses out the truth - they don’t want her to discover the truth and are expecting her to fail. 

We hear from Sister Johanna Marie both at the time of her investigation and some 20 years later, when she is sent back again when one of the boys changes his story.  The sister has her own secret, which we learn early on. The book perfectly captures the times, especially as it pertains to the Catholic Church, when some sins are more acceptable than others.  

Olafsson has a very sparse writing style, but that doesn’t mean it lacks grace or beauty.  He jumps back and forth between Sister Johanna’s memories of her college days, the story in 1987 and the present day. The book covers the abuse of power in all its guises and how those abuses affect the innocent and the powerless.   Johanna is a wonderful character.  She wrestles with her faith. For her, God is not a certainty but yet she continues to pray and talk to him.

And yes, I knew from early on how the book would end, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book.

My thanks to netgalley and Ecco for an advance copy of this book.
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This was a most interesting read, but sometimes I felt so lost and confused due to the storyline. I would get lost between Sister Johanna remembering her younger years as she was thinking of becoming a nun, in the 1980’s and then we would jump to the 2000’s and her trip to Iceland. I was completely confused on the broom closet, who was in it, and when did it happen. In the end though, it was all tidied up with a bow. 
The story is told in first person by Sister Johanna, on one page, we would start when she was traveling in Iceland, then jump to her mind wondering of something completely different and then back to the present. I would have to backtrack to figure out where I was. 
The other thing I had to adapt to was the sentence structure, the narrative did not differentiate between who was talking, you needed to pay attention who was in the car or the room in order to figure out what was being said by whom. I’m sure this is the authors way of writing, but it does take some getting use to. 
There are a couple hidden scenarios that I will not elaborate on because I would consider them spoilers, but there are two things, one that comes to light and one that is alluded to that really made this story very interesting. Even though I had trouble getting use to the writing style, I still think it was a really good book, well worth reading. 
I was given the opportunity to receive this book from HarperCollins Publishers through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. This one gets 4 stars.
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A good, if largely predictable, story about a nun sent to Iceland to investigate the local Catholic school headmaster. There is some good illustration of the Catholic Church's attempt to suppress any claims of abuse, but the primary focus is on the experience of the nun. Good pacing and a lovable main character. Overall a good read but not likely one that I will remember for a long time.
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Olafsson's The Sacrament tells the story of a nun from her school days  to her days in a French Convent tending roses along side her dog, George Harrison. She is haunted by the past, a friendship at school, a priest and his alleged abuse of boys. She is called by the Vatican to go to Iceland and investigate the reports. Buried secrets, denials and lost friendship surround her journey. A journey which she must repeat twenty years later. Will the truth come out?
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I received a free e-copy of The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson from NetGalley for my honest review.

Sister Johann is asked to travel to Iceland and investigate an alleged sexual crime between a priest and some young boys.

After a very thorough investigation, Sister knows he is guilty. The problem is that none of the children or their parents are willing to have it documented. The priest knows this, of course, and provokes her.

An well written and intriguing read.
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I have loved all the author's previous books and this was no exception. Chilling. Good beach read to keep you all cool and distracted during this hot summer.
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A young nun is sent to Iceland to investigate the dark, malignant underbelly of the Catholic Church when an anonymous letter arrives with abuse accusations level at the priest in charge of the local school. So begins this wonderfully written, and haunting story which dwells inside this horrible secret that the church has tried to ignore for years.

Sister Johanna, now older but still conflicted with her own feelings, is sent back to Iceland to relive her first time there when, in the midst of putting her report on her findings together, the priest suddenly falls from the church's belfry. His death puts an end to the investigation except years later the young boy who witnessed his fall wants to tell the Sister something he forgot. With memories flowing back she reluctantly travels to the past and all secrets and truth are exposed.

Emotionally stirring, I think you will like this one.
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Enjoyable read about an area of the world that I wasn’t familiar with.  Some tough subject matters and hard to pronounce names but interesting story about a nun who struggles with self and god.  Jumps around a bit between decades and countries but different than the usual mystery or romance novel. Wish there were book club discussion questions because sometimes those help me in undestanding the storyline.  Thanks for the opportunity to read something a little different.
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This book was captivating. As a Catholic, I’ve always questioned certain things and this book simply fueled that fire. I simply adored it.
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I really enjoyed how slow the plot crept up on me while reading it. Because of the non-linear storytelling, it was very disjointed and hard to keep track of the story; but that could have been because of the ARC kindle format. It might be different and more clear if it was a physical copy. 
From what I could gather, there are three specific points in time the plot takes place: When Sister Johanna Marie is in school and meets Halla in the 1960s, when Sister Johanna Marie first visits Iceland to investigate the abuse allegations in the 1980s, and present day when she learns something new and has to go back to Iceland.

I could be wrong, but like I said, I kept losing track of where the story was and what plot was happening when. 

What I liked: Páll and Sister Johanna Marie's friendship throughout the book. Páll is a fun character and seems ok with going along with what the nun wants to do, only expressing concern when something bad might happen. Their interactions were cute and funny at times as well as interesting and sad.

What I didn't like: As stated above, the non-linear storytelling and the confusion stemming from that.
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First things first: I ABSOLUTELY did the silly thing where I saw the cover of this book and assumed it to be horror or even suspense. However! After realizing my mistake, I quickly started enjoying this book for the lovely piece of literature that it is! 

This story is told through the eyes of Sister Johanna Marie, an elderly nun who is called back to Iceland after years to further discuss a case that she looked into involving child molestation in the church. The timeline bounces back and forth between current day, her past schooling and when the investigation took place. 

This was a really great book, and there was even a twist that surprised me at the end of the novel.
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I really enjoyed this book! Definitely has a dark and twisty vintage vibe to it. It centers around a nun who witnessed something horrifying many years ago, and the cardinal who drags her back into that memory when the church is named in an investigation into the event. The story felt genuine (not contrived) and very timely given the seemingly endless scandals plaguing (no pun intended) the Catholic Church in present day. I highly recommend it for fans of the mystery/thriller genre, or fans of unreliable narrator-type stories, whether or not you grew up in the Catholic faith or are religious at all!
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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a chance to review this book.

In this sad time of so many children taken advantage of by people in religious leadership this book offers a different twist on it. Told from the point of view of a elderly Nun and set in Iceland this is a quick read that most will enjoy.  There are some discussion of crimes against children but it is not nearly as graphic as other similar books.
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